‘Wintergreen’ (dongqing) is undoubtedly one of the rarest and most enchanting porcelain glaze colours developed by the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen. As a more poetic alternative for the word ‘evergreen’, ‘wintergreen’ and is used in China to identify many different plants, in particular the Chinese ilex, a plant also known as wannianzhi (‘ten thousand year branches’). The term – and the colour – thus reverberate with good wishes for a long life.
The Yongle reign (1403-1424) is noted for the dramatic changes and innovations introduced to China’s porcelain production, as the kilns came under direct supervision from the court. No other reign, except perhaps the Yongzheng period three centuries later (1723-1735), is marked by such an abundance of new shapes, styles, colours and designs, a sea change so fundamental, that thereafter no real innovation took place for centuries.
The subtle pale green hue that makes the particular charm of ‘wintergreen’ appears to have been devised to echo the sea-green tone of the finest contemporary celadon wares from the Longquan kilns. In the Yongle period, the kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi and those of Longquan in Zhejiang were working side by side to specifications from the court, but not in direct competition with each other. While both kiln centres were recruited to produce the large, sturdy vessels that were intended to be sent abroad as diplomatic gifts, the Jiangxi workshops alone, with their pure white body material and their more exacting potting, glazing and firing, appear to have been in the business of supplying the court with the refined smaller vessels the Emperor might have come in direct contact with, such as this stem bowl.
Stem bowls of less distinctive shape and much cruder workmanship had been produced at both kiln centres at least since the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and those from Longquan kilns often already showed the bamboo-node detail at the stem, but simply indicated by two incised parallel lines (see Zhu Boqian, Longquan yao qingci/Celadons from Longquan Kilns, Taipei, 1998, pls 199 and 200). Yet, these predecessors have little in common with Yongle stem bowls such as the present piece. The strict supervision from the court caused not only an unprecedented refinement of material and craftsmanship, but also introduced a very intentional calibration of proportions, probably due to a design emanating from the drawing board rather than directly from the potter’s wheel. The superb silhouette of the present piece, and its remarkable even colouration, with a subtle natural gradation where it pools and contrasting white edges where it drains, are features that we have come to expect from Yongle imperial porcelain.
In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), stem bowls had a distinct Buddhist connotation. The strong belief of the Yongle Emperor in Tibetan Buddhism initiated an unprecedented flowering of works of art ordered from various imperial workshops for use in Buddhist ceremonies, from Buddhist gilt-bronze sculptures over lacquer sutra cover to many other accoutrements and votive items in different media, including porcelain. Stem bowls were either used in Buddhist ceremonies in the imperial palaces, or bestowed on high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist clerics and their monasteries. Several fine early Ming stem bowls are still preserved in Tibet, where they may have been used together with monk’s cap ewers; see Xueyu cangzhen. Xizang wenwu jinghua/Treasures from Snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, cat. nos 93-97. Elaborate fitted cases made for transport or storage, are testimony to the high esteem in which they were held (ibid., cat. nos 95 and 99).
At the Qing court (1644-1911), early Ming stem bowls were valued as objects of beauty and displayed sitting in sizeable wooden stands, encompassing and completely hiding their stem, but protecting them against toppling. A monochrome white stem bowl, almost certainly also of the Yongle period, is depicted with its stand in the Guwantu [Pictures of antiquities] of 1729, preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and illustrated in China. The Three Emperors. 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 169, p. 255 bottom right.
Only two other stem bowls of this ‘wintergreen’ colour and with this ‘bamboo-node’ stem appear to be recorded, one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Monochrome Porcelain, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 124 (fig. 1), the other sold in our London rooms, 7th April 1981, lot 252, and again in these rooms, 11th May 1983, lot 105.
A few ‘wintergreen’ stem bowls lacking the ‘bamboo-node’ detail are also recorded from the Yongle reign: one in the Tibet Museum, see Xizang Bowuguan cang Ming Qing ciqi jingpin/Ming and Qing Dynasties Ceramics Preserved in Tibet Museum, Beijing, 2004, pl. 26; another, with slight damage, in the Palace Museum, illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuguan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, pl. 88; and one was sold in these rooms, 19th November 1986, lot 215, and again 8th October 2013, lot 3028. A single ‘wintergreen’ example also exists with anhua dragons around the interior and a four-character Yongle mark incised in the centre inside, sold in these rooms 24th November 1981, lot 133, and again in our New York rooms, 22nd March 2001, lot 90.
After the Yongle period, this subtle coloration, which requires impeccably prepared materials and utmost control of the firing, was soon abandoned and properly revived only in the Yongzheng reign. The imperial kilns also developed some other related pale green glaze colours in this period, such as the more bluish cuiqing (‘kingfisher green’) colour seen on small jars (as sold in these rooms, 8th October 2009, lot 1624), but these different shades seem to have been designated to particular shapes and were fired to incredible precision. Only in the Yongzheng reign had the potters once more regained the ability to create at will such closely related, but clearly distinguishable glaze tones.
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